As reports surfaced of a 17-year-old whose suicide was reportedly the result of malicious code, particular scams caused by so-called "ransomware" hit the spotlight. In the case of the teenager, Joseph Edwards, a ransom demand appeared on his computer which claimed to come from law enforcement. The warning demanded $150 or legal action would be taken. As a result, Edwards took his own life. When a notice apparently from the FBI or intelligence agencies appears on someone's computer, fear can overtake reason and result in such sad cases. In a world where cyberthreats are rising, we should know exactly what we are dealing with -- and how to both avoid and combat it.
As explained by security firm Symantec, ransomware is a particular type of malware which locks PCs by encrypting user files. In order to access a system, victims are required to pay hackers -- who often masquerade as law enforcement -- a fee, which is often expected in Bitcoin. There is often a timer included which raises the "fee" if the victim does not immediately pay.
What makes ransomware worse is the fact the malicious code can pull your PC's location and customize notes to appear like your local police force. Not only can this terrify an unwary user, but they may also be too embarrassed to ask for help as a notice may accuse them of viewing child pornography -- such as in the case of the well-known Cryptolocker strain.
Ransomware can hit PCs and mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets -- although the latter options are currently quite rare.
Often, ransomware finds its way on to your system through malicious files hidden within seemingly innocent emails, or phishing campaigns which entice victims to click on links and visit either malicious or compromised websites. Ransomware may also be installed by clicking on malicious links on social media platforms. .PDF files and Microsoft Office documents may be used to disguise the malware, and unpatched versions of software -- such as Adobe Flash, Java and browsers -- are often vulnerable.
Avoid clicking on links that look suspicious, and be careful about opening attachments in emails. If you don't trust it, don't open it. When it comes to phishing campaigns, cyberattackers often take legitimate businesses -- such as banks and loan companies -- knock up a convincing email, and try to make the victim feel fear, such as saying their account has been compromised -- or happy, by declaring a tax rebate is ready and waiting for them. By tapping emotional responses, the hacker hopes a victim doesn't take a step back and think rationally; instead, they click on a link and the damage is done.
Making sure your PC's software and systems are up-to-date and fully patched will help prevent an infection, and installing security software can ensure the malware is detected before it is too late.
When it comes to mobile variants of malware, avoid downloading apps from sources you do not know or trust.
In addition, a regular backup of files means you can restore any damaged or locked files if you become infected.
If you do become infected, do not pay the fee. By doing so, you are only funding criminal enterprises so they can continue striking more victims.
No law enforcement, police or intelligence agency in the world locks individual systems over what you view online. Yes, some law enforcement do track Internet users in censorship-heavy countries, but no police force encrypts your files in order to force you to pay fees. You are not in any danger of arrest if you refuse to pay -- and there is no guarantee your PC will be unlocked even if you do.
Ransomware is a nasty piece of malicious code and there is no need to feel embarrassed if you must take your infected PC to a store -- they won't automatically assume you are viewing things you should not. In fact, it is the emotional response -- the embarrassment factor -- which ransomware deployers hope people feel, as they are more likely to pay up than speak up.
If you're confident enough to tackle it yourself, there are a number of free tools available to wipe your system after booting in Safe Mode with Networking (Windows), as listed below:
If these fail, try System Restore and rolling back your PC before the time of infection.